In 1976, a Republican congressman from the well-heeled western suburbs of Chicago rose on the House floor to make the case for an amendment he had recently introduced, using language that evoked the Nazi plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews.
“The only virtue to abortion is that it is a final solution,” the lawmaker said. “Believe me, it is a final solution, especially to the unborn child.”
The speaker was Henry J. Hyde, the namesake of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funding for most abortions, making the procedure largely inaccessible for women who rely on Medicaid.
His legacy provoked Democratic infighting this week, as invalidation of the measure he wrote nearly 50 years ago became a purity test in the presidential nominating contest. Joe Biden said Thursday, at the Democratic National Committee’s African American Leadership Council summit in Atlanta, that he no longer supported the restriction. A day earlier, his campaign had said the former vice president was not seeking the amendment’s nullification, prompting severe backlash.
Hyde, who died in 2007 of complications from open-heart surgery at age 83, might have relished the roiling effect he was having, posthumously, on the Democratic Party. During his three-plus decades in Congress, the former Chicago trial lawyer took an eager part in virtually all of the battles, from abortion rights to gun control, that still define the terrain of today’s culture wars.
Notably, when he was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he was the architect of the impeachment charges brought against President Bill Clinton, setting out a standard that, two decades later, many Democrats now want to enforce against President Trump. Biden, however, is not yet among them, offering instead that Congress may soon “have no alternative.”
“The president is the trustee of the nation’s conscience and so are we here today,” Hyde told his colleagues in 1998.
The revelation during that process that he had once been involved in an extramarital affair led to accusations of hypocrisy, which abound in today’s Washington. It helped fuel the perception that Republicans were defending not principle but partisan power, which is again a consideration as Democratic leaders agonize about what to do with Trump.
But Hyde also defied partisan expectations, breaking with fellow Republicans to back gun control, as well as social measures that he said were necessary to showcase “capitalism with a human face.”
While Hyde’s record makes clear that cultural battles are hardly more stark today than they once were, it also suggests that these contests are increasingly defined by party loyalty, which is seen by some as a substitute for genuinely held beliefs.
Hyde was born in Chicago, to a father who worked as a telephone company coin collector and a mother who raised him Irish Catholic. He attended Catholic school and then Duke and Georgetown, where he played basketball. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944, returning to Georgetown to complete his degree in history in 1947. He earned a law degree from Loyola University Chicago Law School and began practicing in the area.
Raised as a Democrat in the era of the New Deal, he switched parties in 1952, driven by worries about communism to vote for Dwight D. Eisenhower. He won election to the state legislature in 1966 and became majority leader of the Illinois House of Representatives in 1971. He clinched a seat in Congress in 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade recognized abortion as a right nationwide.
A central cause of abortion opponents following the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision, the Hyde Amendment was attached to a Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill. It was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1980 and has been renewed annually. In 1994, exceptions were added for cases of rape and incest.
The rule once enjoyed bipartisan support. Confronted in 1977 about whether its disproportionate impact on poor Americans was fair, President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, said, “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t."
Carter’s stance is no longer palatable for Democrats. That became clear when Biden, who is leading early polls in the race for the Democratic nomination, reversed his position on the amendment.
The about-face is an illustration of how decisively Democrats — whose platform in 2016 was the first to call for the amendment’s repeal — have moved away from the worldview espoused by Republicans of Hyde’s ilk. He was a relative centrist, described by the Almanac of American Politics as “one of the most respected and intellectually honest members of the House.” President George W. Bush, awarding him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, called him “a tireless champion of the weak and forgotten.” Others who have examined his “moral universe,” however, argue that it was “warped.”
On the issue of abortion, he was no moderate. The magazine of the Knights of Columbus called him “the greatest American champion in the most important human rights struggle of our time — namely, the first for equal justice under law for the unborn child.”
Indeed, Hyde’s language from floor debates on his amendment finds a parallel in the text of the recently passed bill in Alabama bill that proscribes abortion without exceptions for rape or incest. The text of the state’s measure — among the strictest in the recent wave of legislation curtailing abortions rights — likens the procedure to the Holocaust.
Beyond the issue of federal funding for the procedure, he was active in the effort to prohibit a type of late-term abortion that doctors say is extremely infrequent. Decrying Clinton’s 1996 veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, Hyde asked, “What kind of people have we become that this procedure is even a matter for debate?”
Trump has sounded a similar note in falsely accusing Democrats of supporting infanticide.
Hyde was also an early supporter of family leave legislation, saying it was “imperative” to give “capitalism a human face” — a reformulation of a slogan, “socialism with a human face,” pioneered by the Czech leader Alexander Dubček. He offered a similar rationale for endorsing bankruptcy reform, writing in 1999 of his views: “I’m a conservative, and I’m certainly a market capitalist, but I also believe in capitalism with a human face. Declaring bankruptcy can be a traumatic experience, and as we justifiably bolster creditors’ rights, we ought not ignore the need to leave the debtor with a decent standard of living during the repayment period.”
The debate over gun control was another that distinguished the Illinois Republican from many in his party. He backed Clinton in the effort to impose limits on firearms purchases as part of a larger crackdown on crime in the 1990s, voting for the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required federal background checks, as well as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. And he sought compromise on closing gun-show loopholes, a move that led gun rights groups to brand him a “sellout.”
But Hyde became one of Clinton’s chief antagonists when he oversaw impeachment proceedings against the Democratic president as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Hyde then served as the chief prosecutor in the Senate trial on the charges drawn up by the House.
In an opening statement as the House began debate on articles of impeachment in December 1998, he claimed that the proceedings were about legal accountability, not political expediency.
“The personal fate of the president is not the issue,” he said. “The political fate of his party is not the issue. The Dow Jones industrial average is not the issue. The issue is perjury — lying under oath.”
He added, “The issue is obstruction of justice, which the president has sworn the most solemn oath to uphold.”
He specifically defended the decision to move forward despite the partisan makeup of the Senate, which made conviction unlikely. The job of the House, he said, was “to decide if there is enough evidence to submit to the Senate for a trial.”
Even as the Judiciary chairman sought to play down the sexual nature of the president’s alleged wrongdoing — “It’s not a question of sex,” Hyde said — his admission, months earlier, that he had engaged in extramarital conduct in the 1960s engulfed him in a controversy of his own.
“The statute of limitations has long since passed on my youthful indiscretions,” he said, as Republicans accused the White House of digging up information to try to embarrass the lawmaker.
But it was a Florida retiree — whose then-wife, Cherie Snodgrass, had become involved with Hyde — who passed along the information to Salon. Fred Snodgrass, a former furniture salesman in Chicago, told the website that watching Hyde preside over impeachment hearings on television made him so angry that “I nearly jump out of my chair.”
“These politicians were going on about how he should have been on the Supreme Court, what a great man he is, how we’re lucky to have him in Congress in charge of the impeachment case,” Snodgrass said. “And all I can think of is here is this man, this hypocrite who broke up my family.”